– Andrea Benn

Saturday 20 August: Dr Chris Whitehouse – A complete guide to pokers

It was on a Scottish Island that Chris as a young boy began his interest in plants. This led him to South Africa where he is now a world authority on Kniphofias or Red Hot Pokers. Incidentally, his wife Anna has a PhD in elephant studies. They enjoy walking in the Klein River mountains.

Of the asphodelaceae/liliaceae family the genus kniphofia has about 70 species from mountainous or upland areas in southern and tropical Africa. The flowers are attractive to bees and sunbirds and are red, orange, yellow, white or greenish. Some open red and turn to yellow, bearing striking two-coloured racemes. Numerous cultivars have been raised, ranging in size from dwarf plants (50cm) to tall 1.8m plants.

Some cultivars in England, for example Sunset, Buttercup, and Little Maid have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Seeds from the cultivars do not produce plants that are true to the parent. Most plants are clump forming. In deciduous species and hybrids the leaves are usually thin and grass-like, while in evergreens they are broader and strap-shaped.

There are four species in the Western Cape.  The Poker has been confused in the past with aloes and certain succulents like Gasteria and Haworthia.

The Poker was first illustrated in 1624 by a missionary on his way to India. His illustration of Kniphofia uvaria was like a bunch of iris-looking grapes. Called Aloe uvaria, it was taken back to England 50 years later!

A species collected in the Northern Province in 1860, K.crassifolia, has never been found again. There are seven species in Ethiopia of which two are unusual in that flowers open from the top and the dead flowers lie over the newer opening lower ones.

There are about 100 cultivars in Britain today, a diversity greater than that in the wild!  They are grown in gardens in many different ways – rockeries, borders, pots, tropical plantings.

If you are growing them in your garden and can’t introduce a fire, cut some leaves hard back to expose the lower plant to the sun, then feed. Try growing from seed. Not difficult. Choose those that flower best.

Chris has been collating data over many years and has produced a lovely book. Kniphofia are among the top five South African plants that have contributed to world culture. We need to grow them more often as garden subjects – they will attract our sunbirds!